The Boschpoort Redemption

16 minutes to read
Article
Anouk van Vliet
22/07/2020

The Boschpoort, which contains the historical‘Koepelgevangenis’, meaning dome prison, in the Dutch city of Breda was recently turned into an escape room after serving various purposes over the years. This paper is a critical analysis focusing on two questions:
1) Is it desirable that we play games in a historically burdened monument? 
2) What is the social, cultural and economic impact of the different new purposes of the Koepel?

History of the Boschpoort 

In the late 19th century, a number of prisons following a panopticon design were built in the Netherlands. The panopticon was an idea postulated by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and refers to a circular prison with all the cell doors pointing inwards. This would allow the guards to observe the entire facility from one central point, thus reducing the amount of manpower needed to keep the peace. Moreover, the knowledge of constantly being watched would, in theory, motivate inmates to always behave themselves, because the guards were always watching (Bentham, 1778).

One of the Dutch panopticon prisons is located in Breda, in the southern province of Brabant, which was built in 1886 (Bank & Mathijsen, 2006). The original complex was made up of a castle-like gate and the Koepelgevangenis itself. It was designed by Johan Frederik Metzelaar, who also designed the Dutch panopticon prison at Arnhem. A jail - which doubled as the Breda court building for a while - and a church were added later on.

The Koepelgevangenis, colloquially also referred to simply as ‘the Koepel’, was part of a penitentiary called ‘the Boschpoort’. In 2001 the complex became a designated national monument. It remained in use as a women’s prison up until 2013, when it was announced that the facility was closing due to budget cuts. This will be discussed more deeply later on in this paper, but for now it is important to know that the prison was set to be closed down gradually between 2014 and 2016 rather than all at once. The inmates were transferred to a different facility elsewhere in the country (BN De Stem, 2013).

Generally speaking, Temminck Groll says, when a building is given a new destination, value through age, rarity, history, craftsmanship, and urban development decrease, while value through use increases.

The complex served as temporary shelter for asylum seekers until 2015. After that, in December of 2016, it was the decor for an escape room set up by entertainment company Real Life Gaming, in which players assume the role of inmates and actors pose as guards. The objective of the game was, of course, to outwit the guards and escape the prison. Though the Prison Escape project was originally intended to raise money for charity and span just a week, it was eventually extended to two years (Hayes, 2017). However, the escape room has lasted beyond this timeframe and is still there. The Koepel is also being rented out by its owner, the Dutch real estate company VPS, for various other purposes under the brand name FutureDome, ranging from temporary housing for people with disabilities to computer skills courses for people over fifty (FutureDome, n.d.).

Cultural Heritage

In the Breda municipal ordinance on cultural heritage from 2011, a monument is defined as: "an object that is of general importance because of its beauty, meaning for science or cultural-historical value," or an area that contains such an object. There is also a special designation for municipal monuments (Gemeente Breda, 2011). In the Netherlands, monuments fall into four categories: national, provincial, municipal, or iconic buildings and views of cities and towns (Schunselaar, 2009). The Koepelgevangenis falls into two of these, since it is both a national and a municipal monument. From 2007 onwards there have been efforts to designate the complex and its surroundings as an iconic city view.

According to the late Dutch architect and historian of architecture Coenraad Liebrecht Temminck Groll, there are six reasons to ascribe value to a certain building. The first is value through age. Since new technological developments make some things obsolete, they disappear, making the few specimens that remain automatically more valuable. The second reason is related to this and revolves around how rare a certain type of building is. Third, there is historical value. a building can be valuable because it was involved in a historical event. The fourth reason to ascribe value to an artifact is craftsmanship. The fifth reason is related to urban development, which means that a certain building has value because it is part of a larger whole (e.g. an iconic city view). Finally, a building can be valuable because it is being used. This last reason is seldom a factor when it comes to preservation efforts, because in this case it already has a purpose (Temminck Groll, 1959).  

The Koepelgevangenis and its immediate surrounding as seen from above

Generally speaking, Temminck Groll says, when a building is given a new purpose, value through age, rarity, history, craftsmanship, and urban development decrease, while value through use increases. However, it is possible to repurpose valuable buildings and still preserve their value through craftsmanship and urban development when it fits into the environment from an aesthetical point of view (Temminck Groll, 1959).   

In the case of the Koepel, it is clear to see which of these categories are relevant. Only three panopticon prisons were ever built in the Netherlands, so the complex has value through rarity. However, as all three are still there, it does not have value through age. This is because age here refers to whether a certain type of building becomes obsolete and is therefore demolished. The Boschpoort also has historical value, which will be discussed in the next section. There is not much to say about craftsmanship, but from an urban development perspective the Koepel is definitely valuable, as evidenced by the ongoing efforts to have the building designated as an iconic city view. Last but not least, value through use has increased drastically. It has gone from a purpose that cost the state a lot of money to an array of purposes that serve the community. What is more, the former prison’s new destiny has not affected the outward look of the building, so value through craftsmanship - insofar that it is present - and urban development have been preserved.

Perhaps a discussion about the limits of playing with history is warranted.

Multiple stakeholders were involved in the process of giving the Boschpoort a new fate. To begin at the highest level, the Dutch state closed the prison as part of a larger effort to cut back government spending. The municipality of Breda, as well as the city’s inhabitants, wanted to save the building because it is a monument. Moreover, the municipality gained a potential new source of income by proxy; the Prison Escape project may bring more tourists to the city or they might extend their visit.

From the business side of things, the search for the Koepel's new purpose presented entrepreneurs with new business opportunities. In the end, it was the real estate company VPS that got the chance to make the Koepel profitable. The people living in Breda and the surrounding area gained a new entertainment venue and public building. Finally, the closing of the penitentiary meant that staff lost their jobs and inmates had to be moved.

Playing with history

Yet despite the building’s repurposing and its benefits, one thing appears to fall through the cracks: the history of the Boschpoort as a penitentiary. This history should not be forgotten, as the Koepel is best known for being the place where a number of Dutch collaborators and even a few German soldiers convicted of war crimes - known as ‘de Drie van Breda’ - were imprisoned after the war (Smits, 2008).

On top of that, there is also the question of whether it is morally right to play games in a former prison in the first place. This is especially relevant given the fact that in 1952 seven of the aforementioned Nazi prisoners escaped from the Koepel and got away with it (Schapendonk, 2018). Something about an escape room in a former prison causes friction on an emotional level, but at least it still refers to the past. When the Prison Escape project ends, this connection will also disappear. The only thing that remains are the guided tours in the Koepel organized every year around Christmas for a select number of people (Omroep Brabant, 2018). But is this enough to keep the history alive?

A report from the ‘Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek’, or Central Bureau of Statistics, published in 2016 shows that the crime rate in the Netherlands has been on the decline across the board since 2005, meaning there are fewer criminals to lock up. The fact that the Dutch government could afford to close down prisons is, in a way, a luxury, since a low crime rate shows that society is doing well. Moreover, the money that used to go towards operating these prisons can now be spent on positive social programs instead. The closing of the Koepelgevangenis specifically provided the municipality with space for more constructive activities, allowing for a shift away from punishment and towards serving the community. Still, it seems that something is lost by not adequately addressing the past.

However, 'not addressing the past' is not entirely true. In the Netherlands, there are a lot of requirements that have to be met in order to repurposef monument. In the law it is clearly stated that "the structure, valuable characteristics, and materials used ought to be honored" (Veldkamp, 2013). However, some emergency changes were made. As seen in the history of the Boschpoort, the prison was used to shelter refugees at one point. For this reason the original bars and doors were removed from the cells (Rosman, 2014). This changed the inside of the prison slightly.

Now that it is an escape room you might think that it needed a little makeover, right? Wrong. The people behind Prison Escape kept the prison almost entirely as it was left behind. In a conversation with one of the crewmembers of the escape room, it became clear that the organization had only made some changes to the interior, as all they had to do was hang up lights and sound installations (Whatsappmanager Prison Escape, personal communication, March 13, 2019). The game and the actors are part of a story that is in line with the background of the place. Being treated like a prisoner and being locked in a cell is part of the experience. This reminds us of the original purpose of the building. 

The interior of the Koepel has remained almost completely unchanged

However, the Boschpoort is not the only penitentiary in the Netherlands that has been turned into an escape room. In the city of Utrecht, another monumental building known as ‘the Wolvenburg’, meaning 'wolves’ burrow', serves as decor for the ‘Gajes in de Bajes’ project, where players also assume the role of inmates. More controversial is the escape room found in an old bunker in the town of Valkenswaard, which is a replica of the infamous ‘Achterhuis’ where Anne Frank and her family went into hiding from the Germans. Despite criticism from the Anne Frank Foundation and others, the creator of the escape room insists that it is not his intention to trivialize the war for the sake of a game, but rather to educate people (De Wever, 2016).

Outside of the Netherlands, there are more examples of such Holocaust-themed escape rooms, like one based on the movie Schindler’s List in Thessaloniki, Greece. In a city that once had one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in Europe before the deportation of around 50.000 Jews during the war, this kind of entertainment has a particularly sour aftertaste. Similarly, there was briefly an escape room in the Czech Republic modelled after the gas chambers at Auschwitz (The Times of Israel, 2019). The question of whether it is possible to educate people about the suffering of others through games has also come to the fore in this paper, but what is clear is that these escape rooms are not without controversy. Perhaps a discussion about the limits of playing with history is warranted.

Social and economic impact

Before discussing economic impact it is important to first have a look at the writings of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu distinguishes three forms of capital: financial, social and cultural. Financial capital is the most obvious one, as it is about things that have to do with money. Social capital is a little more complex, as it is “actual or potential resources which are linked to (…) membership in a group” (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 247). Cultural capital, finally, is about the status of a cultural expression and is measured by symbolic value and scarcity. These three forms interweave in daily practice.

With ticket prices between €59,99-€79,99 per person, a quick calculation results in €2.099.650,00-€2.799.650,00 worth of revenue per year for the escape room.

The Boschpoort has had several stages of economic impact. The first stage was the closing of the prison, which was partially due to the economic crisis. State Secretary of Security and Justice Fred Teeven decided to close 19 prisons in order to economize 340 million euros (AD.nl, 2016). With that, 2000 jobs would be lost. This is the heavily revised plan, because originally he wanted to close more prisons, causing the loss of 3400 jobs (Benschop, 2013). The closing that still was on the list, Breda, caused the loss of 380 jobs (Bremer, 2013).

After the announcement, employees left so quickly that the prison had to be closed before the intended date (Nuiten, 2018). The director was certain all the employees would be able to find a new job. As previously discussed,, this architectual marvel became vacant.  Since an empty building requires a lot of maintenance, the valuable building feel into disrepair. As a piece of cultural heritage, the Koepel has a story, so it must be preserved for future generations (Frijhoff, 2007).

The second impact is more difficult to pin down. The economic impact of the Koepel being used as a temporary shelter for refugees gave the municipality more time to find them a better place, but it was clear to everybody that they had to leave the prison very soon. It gave the municipality the opportunity to find new places and new solutions to this problem. This has had an impact on the organization of refugee cases. 

It is hard to say how much financial impact it has had. However, the building was not empty anymore, and so the building had a new purpose. The importance of the shelter for the refugees increased the social and cultural capital of the building. The prison was unique and very necessary for certain people in the community at this point. However, it cost the municipality money; the value of the building was now more focused on its purpose.

The last period of impact started when the refugees left and the prison became an escape room, as seen in the chapter 'Playing with history'. The small changes to the building's interior had little economic impact, but its new role made a huge financial difference. Given the popularity of the escape room concept, the organization expected 35.000 visitors in the first year. With ticket prices between €59,99-€79,99 per person, a quick calculation results in €2.099.650,00-€2.799.650,00 of revenue per year for the escape room.

Being treated like a prisoner is part of the experience

The escape room also gained social capital, because it became a place for people that want to undergo a certain experience. These people can now meet each other for the purpose of entertainment. The cultural capital has also grown because it is an experience that is perceived as unique. This is partially true, as it relies on actors, but the idea of an escape room in a former prison is not unique. Still, the mere feeling that it is enhances the experience.

It can be said that the Prison Escape project led to an increase of all forms of capital. Yet going through these stages it becomes clear the prison only gained more financial, social and cultural capital by serving different purposes. The financial capital increased, because of the increasing historical/monumental value of the building and the money it produces with the very popular escape room. The social capital increased, because of the different purposes.

Twice, this building has transformed into a place where people could meet, socialize, and even have fun. It has become a place where people want to be together and make experiences together. The cultural capital increased because this building and its story became more and more unique, there was no other building in the city where a prison escape game could be played with this level of 'authenticity'. The same thing goes for it being a place to lock up people, to shelter people and to entertain people all in such a short timespan. Breda is lucky to have this important and unique building.

Advice

The new use of the Boschpoort penitentiary is not unproblematic. There is certain friction between its former purpose as a prison and its current use as escape room, and fits into a broader trend of controversially themed games. Yet, as the creator of the Anne Frank escape room has said, it can also be a way of educating people about suffering. Although his intentions appear to be good, he has faced heavy criticism.

It may be wise for him and others who wish to do something similar in the future to consult people who experienced the kind of suffering in question first hand, or at least the organizations that represent them. The deciding criterion for playing this type of game in such an emotionally charged building is, for us, education. When the aim is not to trivialize the suffering, but instead to educate people, respect for history would be guaranteed. However, as the creators of these games are not victims themselves, it would be advisable for them to consult those who experienced or witnessed the suffering.

In the case of the Prison Escape project, it appears this tension is being addressed by offering guided tours through the facility once a year. Still, given their low frequency, the main reference to the past lies in the escape room. To support the educational goals of the game, a second piece of advice would be to interweave the learning with the game. This can be done through mandatory information sessions, for example in the form of a short documentary, lecture, or Q&A prior to the game. An increased frequency of guided tours open for a wider audience than only the ones who play the games would contribute towards this goal as well. 

Despite going through multiple stages of social and economic impact and an unsure future for the escape room, the Koepel has endured.

So far, the escape room in Breda has outlived its projected lifespan, but this could still change. When the Prison Escape project ends, this connection with the former purpose of the Koepel as a place of punishment will disappear. As none of the other uses refer to the past, it is advisable to replace the escape room with other, and maybe more explicitly educational, activities. This might also be an opportunity to educate people about the Dutch penitentiary system in a broad sense.

The social and economic impact of the escape room is a positive one. For the people behind the Prison Escape project and VPS, it is a lucrative source of income. From the point of view of the municipality, it solves the problem of what to do with an empty monumental building. The Koepel is, after all, cultural heritage, and being able to give it a new purpose makes preserving it a lot easier. Moreover, the Koepel is now used in a constructive manner rather than as a place of punishment. As for advice in this regard, perhaps it would have been better in retrospect to draw up plans for a new purpose before it was announced that the prison was going to be closed down.

Despite going through multiple stages of social and economic impact and an unsure future for the escape room, the Koepel has endured. Just like the many criminals that did their time throughout the prison's long history, the focus has shifted away from punishment into serving the community, thus granting the Boschpoort redemption.

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